This post was written by Maya-Catherine Popa, 20, an author of RED the Book, a collection of personal essays written by 58 American teenage girls, now available in paperback and in development for TV, film, and theater. She attends Barnard College, where she is getting her BA in English Literature and Creative Writing with a focus on Women's Studies. She edits for and has also had work featured in the Columbia Review and A Gathering of the Tribes. She was recently awarded the Amy Loveman Memorial Award for undergraduate poetry.
Lying is one of the few activities I have never mastered. Though I more than possess the creativity to lie, I lack the stamina necessary to uphold it. It's similar to my relationship to running: yes, I have legs, but is that really how I want to use them?
People -- and by people I mean me, before Denis and I became victims of the same liberal-arts college last year -- are for the most part ready to accept what another person says as the truth. Why wouldn't they? No one wants the burden of constant second-guessing, just as no New Yorker wants to believe that he or she is a permanently hardened, cynical, paranoid citizen of the island.
My readiness to believe others and my inability to lie stem from classic, if not gifted, moral fortitude. That and the fact that the post-tall tale guilt is rarely worth whatever it is I was trying to weasel out of, or whoever it is I was trying to impress. Then again, I suppose there are times, especially in the romantic realm, where a loosely defined lie can be just the thing, like showing just the right amount of false enthusiasm when a lover gives you a bamboo present for Valentine's Day. Crying is gimmicky, but 'what the hell is this?' isn't appropriate either.
Until I met Denis, I took pride in the fact that, despite not being a liar myself, I was pretty good at telling when someone else was lying.
Denis grew up in England and would rivet everyone with tales of fistfights in British schoolyards and rugged, narrow escapes -- at the same time maintaining a perfect 4.0 GPA, playing in a professional orchestra, and speaking Gaelic. But the rough-but-refined James Bondian balance was not what made Denis cool. That would be the way he always sounded just about fed up with everything -- his teachers, his peers, the food, America, the weather, south-facing windows, people indoors, people outdoors.
Our efforts to befriend, feed, provide light in the classroom were never good enough. We failed with Denis, and we failed big.
On top of his revolting but hugely irresistible angst, Denis was easily the most handsome guy in our year. He was nicknamed Bobby Kennedy for his eloquent speech (one heard pedigree), thick hair, and incandescent blue eyes. Last January, much to the jealousy of the 200 straight, desperate girls at our 85-percent female college, Denis and I started dating.
We spent winter afternoons in my cubicle room, arguing everything from Proust to Tex Mex (and the inevitable, laughable connection between the two). We swapped stories about family and past relationships, crippling to enviable. That's how I got to know, or believe I got to know, Denis.
In the dark of our three-foot wide bed, he revealed a scar on his upper thigh and directed my attention to two broken ribs from falling six feet into a pit -- an ostrich pit. Under the watch of an incompetent nanny, six-year-old Denis had climbed a rickety fence at the zoo, falling into a pile of ostrich droppings the size of fists.
"That can't be true."
"I swear to God it is. I was in that pit for ten minutes, shaking. It took the staff ten minutes to get their act together and get me out. The mother ostrich clawed me in the leg. Have you ever seen an ostrich claw?"
"No. Is it true they bury their heads in sand?"
"That's not the point!"
"Right. Sorry. Did you have to get stitches?"
I was dating a fighter -- an ostrich fighter. I relished in telling everyone the story. Some days, there were just a few ostriches. Others, I'd make it sound like the rabid big-dopey-bird rehabilitation center. Who would make up such an unlikely tale and swear to God that it was true? Who would repeatedly tell the story without faltering on any of the gritty details regarding sloppy zoo bureaucracy in the U.K.? Besides, I got to see Denis in his knickers.
Denis called his penis John Wayne. He told me how he'd dressed up as a cowboy and gone to visit his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Rose, who said he looked like John Wayne. He then flashed her, either to reinforce the point or to prove her wrong. Denis was four years old at the time, though I often find myself leaving that detail out. The story plays better when listeners imagine Denis of an unspecified age giving a British granny an eyeful.
By February, he and I were spending snowy weekends away from school at my Manhattan apartment. Overjoyed at unfrequented levels of domesticity, I spent afternoons baking. When he casually hinted at his conservative views on marriage and family, I was quietly willing goodbye to 14 years of expensive tuitions, hello to babies and baked goods. Our children could play instruments. I could make instrument-shaped cookies.
But a few weeks later, Denis disappeared. He stopped coming to classes, stopped calling. Once in awhile, I'd receive a cryptic text message saying he was fine but tired. Faculty began to grill me on his whereabouts.
Two weeks into his vanishing I could no longer make excuses on his behalf. Then, one Sunday evening, he called:
"So, I know you must be wondering what's going on."
"Why I've been away so much lately..."
"I've decided to drop out of school and move to Texas."
I requested a meeting with his angry professors, then I baked and slept peacefully. The next morning, I marched right up to them. I brought ukulele cookies.
"So, anyway, I'm sure you're wondering why I've called you here. I know Denis has missed a few classes lately..."
"He's lost most of his credits and is on academic probation."
"Right, like I said, he's a little behind. But I think we're focusing on the wrong issue here. I think Denis may have suffered a mental breakdown."
"What makes you think that? Should we inform health services? Has he endangered himself or others in any way?"
"Well no, not yet at least. He's under the impression that he wants to drop out of school and move to Texas." Nervous laughter. "Of all places. So, you see, we have to act immediately..."
"Maybe it's a good idea for him to go home if he's not well."
"Oh no, Professor, you misunderstood me. I said Texas. Like, cattle and Dixie Chicks, Texas."
"Yes, we understand. Denis is from Texas. We consulted his forms when we met
with the dean this morning. He probably made the healthy decision to go home."
This was the beginning of the unraveling of Denis. I wish I could say I'd caught on at some point sooner, or that I'd suspected he was lying and chose to protect his pride by not confronting him. We met once after our phone conversation, long enough for him to apologize for what was a trip to the isles of his effortless talent and pathology. Names, places, and anecdotes were all debunked. He couldn't speak Gaelic. The song he'd claimed to have written for my birthday was a folk song featured in the credits of In Bruges. Nothing he'd lied about was of direct consequence to me -- he hadn't been cheating or put me at risk of anything -- but I couldn't stomach the thought that I'd been so carelessly, uselessly duped over the past few months.
"What about the ostrich? What about the scar?"
"It was dark, you didn't actually see a it. You only believed what you wanted to believe."
Denis was wrong. I've been fairly consistent in the qualities I seek in a partner, and not once have I wanted to believe that a boyfriend was an ostrich fighter. I was humiliated, heartbroken.
Spring came with its soft light; flurries of petals covered the campus. Though confronted with questions about Denis' disappearance, I never revealed his whereabouts or his lies. And despite his unforgivable behavior, I missed him daily. I felt uneasy and nervous. I doubted everyone, most of all myself.
Honesty is always cited as the most desired feature in a relationship, and often one of the hardest to obtain and maintain. A violation of that honesty in a relationship, however, is usually just code for someone screwing around -- which makes it all very clear. Out with the liar.
Denis lied repeatedly, but most of his lies were arguably insignificant. What did I care if he couldn't speak Gaelic? Or if he didn't write a beautiful song that he still played in a woo-worthy way? Is there such a thing as a harmless lie? A white lie, one that doesn't darken your under-eyes afterwards? Where do lies reside in the cosmos of language, of relationships? Why does society support lying about your feelings and opinions in the name of protecting someone else's, but not about where you've been or what you've done? Denis still claims to have never lied about his feelings for anyone and, in his short time at school, managed to offend fewer than a dozen students and faculty with this policy. But he left many times that number in awe of his stories.
Lies are the plasticware of life's delivery: temporary fixes, neither enchanting nor enduring. So I loved a storyteller. Don't we all? Is there anything more seductive, really? From the moment we're born we're dazzled by stories of love and heroism, bravery and danger, dragon if not ostrich hunting. A story is an agreement to accept something romanticized -- in the case of a relationship, a mutual agreement to suspend disbelief in accepting eachother's narratives. But a lie is a story slipped under false pretense, like poison in the queen's goblet, or the fence collapsing under Denis's weight, and then my own.
Denis's lies were never harmless, because liars do something powerful: they alter our sense of security. It's not that you can't believe them, it's that they can make it difficult to believe what you know of yourself. It took six batches of cookies to reaffirm my confidence in my baking alone. Is it because I need validation from others? Yes, of course it is. Perceptions of our talents, our attractiveness, that we are each unique and special and therefore lovable, come largely from what other people tell us.
Just as we yearn to tell stories, vent, and establish commonality, so we find ourselves wanting to captivate, charm -- particularly that one other person who deeply agrees with what we think and say, who buys our mythology and where we tell them we come from. We breathe for yes, go on, for tenderness from our favorite fellow storyteller. But we want clear categories for truth and fiction.
Denis returned to his small Texas town to 1) play in a mariachi band, 2) work for a childcare center, 3) fall into the pit of another wild beast. Things that were reaffirmed upon his leaving: that I can bake, that I consume more coffee than should be possible, that I'm a pool shark and premier flower doodler. That the John Wayne story gets better every time. Some things even I needn't have reaffirmed.